I’m a lefty. Unless you’re reading this at some point where I’m required to be politically neutral, in which case I’m not. But seriously, I’ve been on some lovely protests, I’ve paid thousands of pounds at university to study Marx until I can basically smell alienated labour & panoptic power from 300 metres (not hard, it’s everywhere), I’ve had breaking-up level arguments with partners over imperialism and neocolonialism. I have my credentials, I’m not a party member (nor have I ever been a member of /any/ party), and I’m certainly not the most lefty person ever, but I can sing enough of the songs.
I also really like doing web stuff. I’ve found a career where I can do social science, geekery and politics at an exciting time where doing digital for government doesn’t mean outsourcing to a faceless service provider in a shit suit.
Having said all of this, I like keeping politics out of the day job. I work with civil servants who are professional enough to execute policy beyond their own beliefs, and for the most part, I follow this mantra as well.
So, there’s this headline in ComputerWeekly: “GDS becomes political as Labour launches digital government review" and it is just the latest in a long line of things to start coming out of the party on the subject.
I have a few problems with the framing of the questions on this bit of policy creation.
Last week, I went to the launch of the Labour Digital network [visit the site to go back to the internet of 2005]. It was a challenging event that I’m splitting down to a binary:
- There was an event. Good start.
- Martha Lane Fox spoke (first time I’ve seen her IRL)
- Not a single person from Labour that I spoke to demonstrated any experience of ‘Government Digital’ (either as a civil servant, working on projects in the private sector, or even having read the Service Design Manual or looked at an exemplar service).
- I spoke to people who didn’t know what agile development is.
- I spoke to people who wanted to make government information “more like Buzzfeed”. Did users ask for that? “It would just look better”. SMDH.
- One guy swore blind that government stuff “should work on mobile” and refused to believe me when I told him it already does.
- Several people were patronising or walked off mid conversation when they saw someone more important than three people who actually work in the sector.
None of these are fatal flaws, but seeing what has come out of Labour for the last few months, it adds to a perception (that I actively don’t want to have) that Labour don’t have a clue on this.
Introducing yourself as having worked in IBM for most of your life, even if you make the “no one gets fired for using IBM” joke, as the compere did, is a worry. That is like turning up to a meeting on having a good corporate song and saying you’re from G4S.
What’s happened in the last few years needs to be beyond becoming a political football. Government digital has really benefited from the approach seen in GDS, I don’t think that this is the big problem facing us now.Here is what Labour are proposing for their digital review:
Digital government has the power to transform the relationship between the citizen and the state. But that is not what is happening now.
Labour’s Digital Government Review will set out clear and realistic goals for a digital agenda that will improve services and empower citizens while being efficient and cost.
Empowering citizens? Look at the Speakers Commission on Digital Democracy, the Good Law project, Open Policy Making etc. etc. This just seems to be nice words with no actual idea of what is being suggested or critiqued, just a sort of ‘democracy, YAY’ thing. Also, Government Digital is (now) pretty cost efficient. G-Cloud saving 96% on hosting contracts, GDS building things in house saving cash… Please identify a specific inefficiency.
The Review will recognise the good work of the Government Digital Service where it is successful, and suggest changes of direction where it is not.
Cool, I guess?
We will identify an advisory board of the willing and able - well known and experienced industry insiders and stakeholders to review evidence and proposals around two workstreams:
Powering digital government - This will look at how to drive positive, progressive digital change through local and national government, including organisational, skills and technology/infrastructure issues.
Putting citizens in control - How to overturn the power relationship between government and citizens.
Well known and experienced industry leaders? If they’re from Atos, Capita and IBM then you can really fuck off.
Except that the article with Chi says:
Labour is also critical of GDS’s apparent hostility to large IT suppliers. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has openly attacked the “oligopoly” of big IT companies, and GDS has a remit to open up the government IT market to SMEs, with a target to put 50% of all IT contracts through SME suppliers.
Onwurah said that it is an “exaggeration” to say that big IT suppliers are “the bogeymen of IT”. While Labour supports competition and creating opportunities for SMEs, she said that large suppliers “shouldn’t be locked out, but neither should they be locked in”.
She mentioned Fujitsu and HP - two suppliers who have faced particular criticism for their government IT work in the past - as likely contributors to the review. She was keen to point out that suppliers will play no role on the advisory board for the review, but they will be encouraged to make submissions as part of a general call for evidence.
That whole thing is not hopeful. Big suppliers are, often, worse than small ones both in terms of cost and what gets delivered. Now of course, she seems to be saying specifically that they won’t be on the panel, and Microsoft contributed to the Open Standards debate on OOXML the other week without the world imploding. But, you know, why are big companies going to behave better this time?
Britain (including the bits that aren’t London) has a bloody amazing tech sector. Labour need to come and do their Thick of It ‘week at the coalface with the drones’ and actually see how this works rather than imagining that something is wrong just because the Tories did it.
There are tons of things wrong with digital in the UK. Local Government. NHS stuff is still a problem. Rural broadband. Assisted digital. Parliament’s data. These are still really broken and need fixing more than re-engineering central government, which is actually ticking along pretty well, all things considered.
It would be exceptionally disappointing to see Labour try to turn GDS into a political issue. Good design for users is good. Let’s not take things back to 2007.
All opinions can be forwarded to @blangry on twitter.